UP Catholic photo by John Fee
Bishop Sample speaks about John and Olga Cocco at St. Bruno Parish in Nadeau, Mich. during the church's 125th anniversary celebration in 2012. The couple was celebrating their 67th wedding anniversary.
UP Catholic photo by John Fee
Bishop Sample speaks about John and Olga Cocco at St. Bruno Parish in Nadeau, Mich. during the church's 125th anniversary celebration in 2012. The couple was celebrating their 67th wedding anniversary.
MARQUETTE, Mich. — In 2011, on the fifth anniversary of his episcopal ordination here, Archbishop Alexander Sample called his tenure a blessing. He also admitted it had been taxing at times, with a priest shortage and the need to close some parishes because of budget.

“There are 50-something priests and 94 parishes and missions to provide support for and take care of," he told the UP Catholic. "There’s a lot of problem solving and reacting to problems within the Church, from the finances to scandalous things and putting out fires. I make decisions that may negatively impact people’s own parishes and they get angry with me. I’ve got to see the common good of the entire diocesan church.”

As of April 2, Archbishop Sample is leader of a local church with more than 300 priests and about 150 parishes and missions. One of only 33 archdioceses in the nation, the Archdiocese of Portland covers 30,000 square miles as opposed to 16,000 square miles in the Diocese of Marquette. There are more than 400,000 Catholics in western Oregon, about five times the Catholic population in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.  

Archbishop Sample realizes his ministry is about to go into a higher gear. "This is a big step up in responsibility for me," he says.

The numbers may indeed be larger, but Archbishop Sample has already encountered the kinds of joys and challenges that are part of episcopal life.
He's an introvert, someone who gets energy mainly by being alone. Yet he's also naturally charismatic and exerts himself gladly for the people. He visits parishes, gives talks and attends benefit dinners.  

"I love this stuff," he said, having just had lunch with 70 members of a small parish near the Wisconsin border. "This is what makes being a bishop fun. It's being out with the people, not being behind the desk doing administrative work, though that has to be done."

Second only to saying Mass, celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation is his favorite part of ministry. He hears confessions by the score at conferences and youth gatherings. It's draining, but it's a lovely fatigue.

"You feel like you've done something good," he says.

If he's at the hospital, he always says yes if someone wants the sacrament of anointing. "At heart, I'm a pastor," he says. "Those are the moments I feel most close to the Lord."

As chancellor of the Diocese of Marquette before he was named bishop, he helped Bishop James Garland address sex abuse issues. "The first concern must be with those who are victimized," he told reporters in Portland.

He helped devise careful screening for priesthood candidates and helped to see that justice was served for victims, families and those accused. He promised to be transparent. "I commit myself to that," he said.

When he removed a priest from a small town because of credible sex abuse allegations, parishioners became irate. He listened, explained patiently, and took the figurative hits.

When his mother tells him that everyone seems to love him, he tells her she should read his mail. It's part of a bishop's job to hear complaints and he always responds. When he gets praise about a priest, he always makes a copy and sends it along to the man.

There are five tribal reservations in the Upper Peninsula, including bands of Chippewa and Potawatomi. Archbishop Sample feels affection for the Native peoples.

He also has a special love for prison ministry, which he has done regularly in Marquette and recently on a trip to the western edge of his diocese.

As Archbishop of Portland, he intends to continue working to protect human life from conception to natural death and to defend marriage from attempts to redefine it to include same sex unions. "We need to protect institutions that have been the bedrock of society and culture," he says. At the same time, he says the church must reach out to people with same sex attraction: "I want them to feel part of the community of the church."  

He has written a pastoral letter on sacred music, convinced that catechesis on liturgical matters and other parts of church life was lacking in the decades after the Second Vatican Council.

“Pope Benedict speaks of a 'reform of the reform,'" Archbishop Sample wrote in 2011, on the fifth anniversary of his ordination as a bishop. "I am squarely in his camp. Being absolutely faithful to those liturgical reforms specifically called for by Vatican II, we need to see the liturgical reform as being in no way a 'rupture' with the past, but in complete and organic continuity with it as a development of our rich and ancient liturgical tradition.”

He oversaw a redesign of the Diocese of Marquette website. User-friendly, it includes rotating photos, inviting tabs and color. "It's about evangelizing," he says. "I want it to be something more people will come back to see." He intends similar changes for the Archdiocese of Portland website.  

Since bishops serve not only their local church, but the church universal, they are members of committees and boards in all kinds of places. Archbishop Sample is a member of a U.S. bishops' Subcommittee on the Catechism and sits on the board of Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.